The divisional round of the NFL playoffs presents an interesting dynamic.
The four teams that won on wild-card weekend all come in with momentum and people jump on their bandwagon. All four of those teams are on the road against either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but their chances of pulling an upset often are magnified because their opponent has had a bye week and is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Should we believe the hype? Here’s a list of this weekend’s games ranked by their likelihood of an upset. The point spreads are the Sports Book Review consensus lines as of Friday afternoon.
No. 4: Pittsburgh at Denver (no consensus line)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
Facing the league’s top overall defense and top passing defense is enough of a challenge for the Steelers. That challenge was compounded on Friday when Antonio Brown was ruled out with a concussion.
Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball at practice Friday and is listed as questionable.
Ben Roethlisberger listed as questionable, DeAngelo Williams ruled out https://t.co/4pMCO7fzwr
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 15, 2016
If Roethlisberger joins Brown on the sideline, the Steelers likely would turn to Landry Jones, who completed two of five passes with an interception Saturday against the Bengals. He did lead the Steelers to a win over the Cardinals (13-3) in Week 6, but that was at Pittsburgh. It would be a much taller task in the thin Denver air against the top-seeded Broncos (12-4).
Even if Roethlisberger does play, he hasn’t been without Antonio Brown since 2012. The last time he didn’t have Brown to throw to, the Steelers needed overtime to beat a 2-14 Chiefs team that year.
Peyton Manning, who has thrown nine passes over the past two months, could regress into the interception machine that he was earlier in the season. Or he could add to his collection of nine one-and-dones in the playoffs.
But Manning and the Broncos are more likely to face their day of reckoning against the Chiefs or Patriots than the banged-up Steelers.
No. 3: Chiefs at Patriots (+5)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
Rob Gronkowski is dealing with knee and back injuries, but it looks like Tom Brady will get one of his favorite pass catchers back.
Julian Edelman is expected to play after missing the last seven games with a foot injury. Edelman caught 61 passes in a little more than half a season and provides a short-range target that helps him get rid of the ball quickly and put the reins on the Chiefs’ pass rush.
The Chiefs’ ability to get to Brady could be hampered further if Justin Houston doesn’t play. He and Jeremy Maclin both are game-time decisions with knee injuries.
The Patriots could be better off than the Chiefs in terms of health. The Chiefs have won 11 straight, but their last regular-season win over a playoff team came in Week 10. They won 30-0 at Houston last week, but Brian Hoyer and the 9-7 Texans barely can be considered a playoff team.
Kansas City’s magic carpet ride figures to come to an end Saturday.
No. 2: Green Bay (+7) at Arizona
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The Packers won’t be the team that was steamrolled 38-8 at Arizona three weeks ago, but they’ll probably have to bring more to the table than they did to beat a Redskins team that was little more than wild-card riff-raff.
Left tackle David Bahktiari is moving toward a return after missing three games with an ankle injury.
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) January 14, 2016
That means that Aaron Rodgers probably won’t have to endure eight sacks like he did against the Cardinals in Week 16, but he might not have all his weapons at his disposal.
Davante Adams caught four passes, including a touchdown, in just over a half against the Redskins. Just when he seemed on the verge of breaking out, however, he suffered an MCL sprain and probably won’t play against the second-seeded Cardinals (13-3).
With the Cardinals secondary locked down on Randall Cobb and James Jones, Eddie Lacy and James Starks have to contend with the Cardinals’ sixth-ranked rushing defense.
The Packers ran for 141 yards in Washington. Lacy (12 carries, 63 yards) averaged better than five yards a carry and Starks (12 carries, 53 yards) averaged better than four yards a carry. But the Redskins allowed 4.8 yards per carry during the regular season. Only the Saints allowed more.
While they won’t embarrass themselves again, the Packers will be hard-pressed to get past Arizona. They can’t be counted out, though, because of Aaron Rodgers’ playoff pedigree.
No. 1: Seahawks (+1) at Carolina
Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
The Seahawks wouldn’t have survived in Minnesota if Blair Walsh had just made a chip-shot field goal, but they’re still standing and will be this weekend’s strongest upset candidate if Marshawn Lynch is a go.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 15, 2016
The top-seeded Panthers (15-1) counter with a rested Jonathan Stewart, who was cautiously held out of the last three games of the season with a foot injury. Their only loss this season came without Stewart.
Carolina defeated the sixth-seeded Seahawks (11-6) 27-23 at Seattle in Week 6, but the Seahawks are a Before/After team this season and they look a lot different now than they did then. After a 4-5 start, the Seahawks won seven of their last eight games with Russell Wilson throwing 25 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
For the Panthers to oust the two-time defending conference champions, their offense will have to revolve around a playmaking Cam Newton.